May at Slightly Foxed is a time of great anticipation and preparation. The craftsmen and women at Smith Settle are carefully nipping, trimming, blocking and binding and here in the office we’re busy shuffling books, moving boxes and clearing out cupboards to conjure up a little space for the impending Summer issue and new SF Edition. As we carefully move past editions from shelf to shelf to make room for the new, we’re reminded of a character from our 17th book in the series, Mango & Mimosa – a gentle, book-loving man who opened a bookshop but could not bear to sell any of his cherished books. Unsurprisingly the shop did not stay open for long!
Slightly Foxed editor Hazel was first introduced to Suzanne St Albans’ memoir, Mango & Mimosa in 1999 when a light editing job dropped through her letterbox – ‘“ . . . a new edition of a memoir by the Duchess of St Albans”, the publisher had said on the phone. Preparing myself for some gently rambling aristocratic reminiscence, I made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to take a look. Hours later I was still sitting there, entranced. I had never heard of its author, but from the first page of this magical memoir I knew I was in the company of a natural writer and a most unusual and lovable human being – someone with a sense of fun and adventure, and an affectionate eye for human (and animal) eccentricity. I constantly wanted to be reading bits out loud to whoever was around’.
Read on for an extract from Mango & Mimosa – and please feel free to follow Hazel's lead and read bits out loud.
Mango & Mimosa, first published in the 1970s, tells the story of a most unusual pre-war childhood. Suzanne St Albans’ family moved restlessly between the home her lovable but ill-assorted parents had created out of the ruins of an old Provençal farmhouse near Vence, and Assam Java, the plantation her father had inherited in Malaya.
Theirs was a self-sufficient world. Her father, a frail and intellectual recluse and quite the opposite of her impulsive, gregarious mother, found social life a dreadful strain, while Marie, their severe but adored Swiss nanny, had a deep mistrust of ‘other children’.
At Mas Mistral, with its dreamy garden and vine terraces, they were surrounded by a convivial but eccentric household of servants and helpers. In the steamy jungle heat of Assam Java, where electric storms thundered across the sky, animals almost took the place of people, for Marie was a keen naturalist. In the courtyard lived a menagerie of friendly creatures, some rescued, some adopted, including a stork who liked playing badminton, a small monkey, and Titi the pet hen, who, assisted by a ‘small ladder’, laid her eggs in the nursery wardrobe among the children’s clothes.
Back in France, the family spent idyllic summers on the long white beaches of the Atlantic coast in the company of family friends, and it was here that Suzanne experienced the confusions, embarrassments and misunderstandings of first love. The outbreak of war in the late summer of 1939 scattered the two families to the winds. It was the end of Suzanne’s childhood, and the end of this funny, observant and entirely original book. Her education had been patchy to say the least, but as a writer she was clearly a natural.
In the following extracts we meet Suzanne’s book-loving but unbusinesslike father in Provence before travelling with the children and Marie to Assam Java and its wild jungle garden.
Once Mas Mistral had been built, and every inch of the garden was laid out and planted, the gardeners took over the daily weeding and general upkeep and there was nothing left for my father to do. Feeling the need for a new activity, he bought the freehold of a corner site on the Place du Grand Jardin in Vence, and made it into a bookshop. A short trip to Paris furnished it with a magnificent collection of art books, all the dictionaries and Larousses imaginable and even, oh joy, a section for children. On that special shelf we found White Fang
, The Last of the Mohicans
, Robinson Crusoe
, Mon Petit Trott
, Oliver Twist
and Aksakov’s Russian Childhood
. This last took possession of our souls and held us in thrall for many months. As soon as she had finished it, Marie had to start reading it again from the beginning.
The trouble with the shop was that my father could not bear to sell the books. When he was not actually reading he stood in a trance, in silent contemplation of the shelves. To sell anything would have broken up the collection – a kind of sacrilege. With a little badgering, you could sometimes borrow one, and if you happened to want it very badly, you simply forgot to return it. That was all right as far as it went. But you were never, never allowed to pay for it.
As might have been expected, the venture was not a success financially. As it turned out, too many people forgot to return the books they borrowed. Replacing them every few months was very expensive, and my mother eventually put her business foot down. Much against his will, my father was finally persuaded to sell the bookshop. It has gone through a dozen hands since then, but it still bears the name he gave it: the ‘Librairie Ligurienne’.
After the bookshop came the buses. Le Petit Train
travelled from Nice to Marseilles one day and returned the next. It stopped at Vence, and everywhere else, on the way. Apart from that, our only communication with the outside world was by donkey. To remedy this, my father had the idea of starting a bus service. He bought half a dozen of these monsters from Messrs Renault et Cie and put them into service. The chauffeurs
were picked off tables at the Café de la Régence and press-ganged into the job.
It was enormous fun, not untinged with moments of terror, to go to Nice in one of Papa’s buses. Scattering goats and sheep before us, we rattled down the mountainside on what was little more than a track in those days, so closely skirting the edge overlooking the valley that we often had to close our eyes in a desperate appeal for mercy to St Christopher. Having been seen by this much overworked saint safely down to the bottom, we would pass the cemetery at the foot of Haut-de-Cagnes. There we had to bury our noses in our handkerchiefs, as the local stench made the air unbreathable, though it probably came from the village rubbish dump next door and not from the dead rotting in their graves as we then supposed . . .
. . . It was several days before a procession of bullock-carts came rumbling up the drive with our belongings, which were packed into several large wooden crates. It took Marie a good deal of grunting and grumbling to sort them all out, and find suitable corners and cupboards for our clothes and toys.
Although Assam Java was quite a large bungalow, there were few rooms as such, since most of its living space had been set out in an early form of open plan. The ground floor, which was built of concrete for coolness, was surrounded on three sides by trellises, over which climbed moonflowers, orchids and fire-cracker vines. Behind the house a covered way led to the kitchen and the servants’ quarters.
A dozen or so stone pillars supported the first and only other floor, which held our bedrooms and the sitting-room, and was reached by a rickety wooden staircase steeped in creosote. When going to bed after supper, in the dark, we kept as far away as we could from the hand-rail, as Marie told us that was the way snakes usually got up to the first floor. The thought of laying your hand on the back of a python making for the bedrooms in search of a feast was spine-chilling.
We were never allowed to run, even barefoot, on this floor. No one knew exactly how strong the timbers were, or how far in the termites with which they were riddled had wormed their way. Our cousins in Kedah had jumped through their bathroom floor, landing on the concrete below, children, keeper, bathtub and all, and had sustained fearful injuries. After we left, Assam Java did in fact collapse like a pack of cards, but mercifully no one was in it at the time.
The first floor was surrounded by a large veranda and a mosquito screen, only ever used after we had gone down with malaria. There were no outside walls, but a few blinds, rotted to shreds by the sun and hanging askew on their strings, flapped around until one by one they were carried away by the wind. A thick curtain of plants enveloped the house, providing a leg-up for an unending stream of visiting lizards and insects. The landing walls were decorated with krises, kukris and all kinds of oriental swords collected by my father over the years. There were also various snake skins, some of which, cured by local craftsmen, were faded and crumbling. Others, treated in India by experts, shone and gleamed like polished silver.
On the right-hand side of the first-floor landing were our parents’ bedrooms, bathroom and breakfast-room. Marie and the three of us children lived across the landing, on the opposite side. The night nursery was built of rough-hewn planks, soaked through with creosote in the vain hope of discouraging termites. There were no ceilings anywhere. We slept under the rafters and palm-leaf thatch, through which wriggled centipedes, lizards and all kinds of insects. An abundant fauna was born, lived and died above our heads. Rats and squirrels peered down at us, various creatures squeezed in and out of the palm-thatch and frequently crashed to the floor with a thud and a squelch. I once found a black and yellow snake curled up between my sheets. One morning his identical twin was nestling in my sandal. I don’t know why we were never bitten.
As nobody seemed to worry, we took this constant shower of snakes and scorpions, centipedes and spiders in our stride. Most of them were tossed out of the window. But when a new creature unknown to us landed, Marie picked it up and dropped it into a jar of surgical spirits which she added to her collection of pickled snakes and other creatures on the night-nursery shelves. The handsome array of vivid greens, yellows and reds, sealed in by the spirits, was gay as a rainbow and never faded.
The top shelf of our night-nursery wall was occupied by a row of jam-jars filled with various breeds of scorpion with deadly stings, foot-long poisonous centipedes as fat as sausages, and several kinds of tarantula and bird-eating spiders. These amiable creatures – all very much alive – were fed on grilled insects from the dining-room table twice a day. A huge acetylene lamp hung, roaring like a motorboat, from a rafter and every airborne insect within a mile hurtled into it and dropped sizzling on to the tablecloth, cooked to a turn for our menagerie upstairs. A sheet of Bronco, stuck with air holes and held down with a rubber band, covered the jars. And wondrous to relate, none of the menagerie ever escaped.
The day nursery was open on all sides to anyone who wished to enter. Miniature owls made free use of the opportunity and raised their families on top of the wardrobe. A small ladder was used by Titi, John’s tame hen, for climbing into our clothes cupboard where she laid her eggs. We had found her as a very small chick, lying on her side with a broken leg, cheeping pathetically, unable to run after her mother. Clucking over her like a mother hen himself, John had gathered her up and carried her to the nursery, where Marie put the leg in a splint made of cotton wool and matchsticks: so expertly did she do it that Titi never had the slightest limp.
From then on we were her family. We fed her on a diet of hard-boiled eggs, bread soaked in Carnation milk, squashed flies and minced worms. Marie said the proper way of preparing worms for her was for us to chew them up first, and I actually saw her put this method into practice herself when dealing with a baby owl who was being difficult about his food. But our devotion never quite reached that level.
Extracted from Chapters 3 & 7 of Mango and Mimosa
© Suzanne St Albans
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 17
Mango & Mimosa
Memoir • 256pp • ISBN 978-1-906562-34-2
Cloth binding • Silk ribbon marker • 170x110mm
UK: £16; Europe: £18; USA & Rest of World: £19 inc p&p
Speakers at this year’s Readers’ Day will include the distinguished biographer (and autobiographer) Michael Holroyd; Lucy Lethbridge, whose recent book Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain has been hugely popular; the traveller and historian Justin Marozzi and Daisy Hay, whose book on the unusual courtship of Mr and Mrs Disraeli is due out next spring.
It looks set to be the usual entertaining and convivial occasion, so if you’d like to join us, do book now. Seating is limited to 95 and tickets do go very quickly.
Friday 7 November 2014
9.45 a.m. – 5 p.m.
The Art Workers’ Guild, Bloomsbury
£55 for the day including morning coffee and afternoon tea and cake.
Exciting news! We’re delighted to announce that from this year, Slightly Foxed
is the official sponsor of the Best First Biography Prize.
Run by the Biographers’ Club, the Best First Biography Prize will be presented this autumn, and will be worth £3,500 to the winner. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Jane Ridley and Anthony Sattin will be the judges.
Last year’s winning biography was Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning
. We’re excited to see what’s in store for 2014 - we’ll be sure to keep you posted throughout the year. For more information about the Biographers’ Club and the prize, please visit www.biographersclub.co.uk
readers are invited to attend all Biographers’ Club events. May’s discussion is on the subject of research:
How To Get the Best
Out of Your Researches
Tuesday 20 May 2014
Rigorous research is the bedrock of all biography. But for many writers doubts arise as to where to start, where to go – where, in fact, to find what we are looking for. The panellists, Professor Jane Ridley, Inez Lynn and Dr Chris Laoutaris, will give their views on this and answer questions.
The event will be held at Swedenborg Hall, Bloomsbury at 6 p.m. and tickets cost £12 (including wine). To book, drop a line to Nicholas Clee
or send a cheque (made out to the Biographers’ Club) to: Nicholas Clee, 8 Plimsoll Road, London N4 2EW.
We are always touched and delighted by the notes, letters, postcards and emails we receive from you. Here are just some of our recent favourites.
‘I couldn’t resist the temptation of your trailer for forthcoming reviews, especially ‘Penelope Lively meets the child that books built’. My husband and I knew his family at Kede University, when Francis Spufford was 6 years.’
A. Haward, Bristol
‘Your products, as always, are wonderful! And I will continue to support you as much as I am able.’
N. Sheeley, Canada
‘I don’t contact you very often but I should like to take this opportunity to say what a pleasure it is to receive Slightly Foxed. It always makes the day feel better, however good or bad the day was to begin with.’ A. Williams, Cheshire
‘I have today posted a sterling cheque from Portugal renewing my sub, which should be with you early next week. So now I can look forward to another year of literary canapés to accompany those ‘Evenings by the pool . . . port . . . SF . . .’ I was quite chuffed to be mentioned in the SF Dispatches - almost famous. Please keep up the wonderful work.’ D. Trubshaw, Portugal
‘‘You were far too indulgent at the time of the last subscription renewal so this time a small donation in appreciation. A few more biscuits perhaps.’ J. Barber, London
This month our Spring Fox has been spotted mingling with George Washington and family at Mount Vernon in Virginia.
Many thanks to Sarah Crook for bringing this to our attention via our Facebook page. Keep them coming!
If you’ve taken the fox on an adventure, or spotted a foxed display in a bookshop, we’d love to hear about it, so send us a photo and a short description and keep an eye out for an appearance in our newsletter in due course.
Throughout March we ran a competition for booksellers, asking them to create a foxy window display to help celebrate our 10th birthday. Independent booksellers across the country rose to our creative challenge, and it was a tall order to decide upon just one winner. So, without further ado, we are pleased to reveal the results. Drum roll please . . .
The first prize of £100 went to The Little Ripon Bookshop in North Yorkshire, who created this charming window display. Well-deserved winners, we think, for their choice of foxy titles and for spelling out Slightly Foxed in special wood block letters. Bravo!
Our two runners-up, winning a half case of wine each, were Corsham Bookshop with their flower-embellished display set against a star-sprinkled background . . .
. . . and Golden Hare Books, who created a spring-inspired scene, complete with a swing bearing piles of our creamy quarterly.
Congratulations to all. Prizes and certificates have been sent out to the deserving winners - along with some Slightly Foxed goodies, of course. We greatly appreciate all the time and effort that went into these celebratory displays and give thanks to all who entered.
For the full range of Slightly Foxed Editions, Paperbacks, Cubs and all things Slightly Foxed
, please visit our online shop.